Can digital technology change the way we think? Can it influence our moral judgments? These questions have ignited a great debate about the proper use of technology in our lives. Many are now pointing out some of the negative effects that have emerged as usage becomes universal.
American author Nicholas Carr posits that the effect is undeniably negative. He is the author of several books and articles on technology, business and culture that criticize the errant notion of technological utopianism. This ideology contradicts the doctrine of Original Sin and holds that the advances in science and technology will lead to a utopia in which suffering can be eliminated, and happiness can be achieved.
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Carr enters into the psychological ramifications of how technology damages our critical-thinking skills. He argues that constant Internet usage promotes multi-tasking, causes overstimulation, requires never-ending messaging and encourages a rapid skimming of material.
As a result, this behavior discourages acute observation, deep thinking, reflection, and precise focus, especially for extended periods. People find that they cannot discern the difference between valuable and useless information. We open our souls to the ephemeral and sensational influence of the Internet.
Effects of Technology Upon the Mind
Can the use of technology change the way we think?
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German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche bought a typewriter in 1881 to help him write because his eyesight was failing. A few friends observed that his writing style changed after using the new machine. German media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler noted Nietzsche’s prose “changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.”
When they appeared in the fourteenth century, mechanical clocks provoked a disassociation of time from human events. They created a belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences. The mechanical clock helped introduce the scientific mind and a corresponding scientific man. Men stopped listening to their senses and obeyed the clock. Men’s reasoning changed by becoming more mechanical and less human. People saw the mind as a machine much as we see it as a sophisticated computer.
Similarly, many experts today believe we have lost some reasoning skills, overall mental ability, observation of details and long- and short-term memory with the digital revolution. Others believe the loss is compensated by overall gains. Stephen Downes from Canada’s National Research Council claims, for example, that the loss of some memory functions is offset by search engines that diminish the need to develop our memory. Hopefully, we will then be free to do more advanced integration and evaluation of information.
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In an article in The Atlantic Monthly, Carr asks, “Is Google Making us Stupid?” He thinks that surfing vast amounts of information on the Internet can cause us to lose our ability to concentrate. We suffer from a lack of retention and find it difficult to “dive deeply” into subjects.
Indeed, scientific studies show that quick and easy access to a plethora of information reduces the effort to remember things. We see no need to strain our brains to remember when the answer is literally at our fingertips.
Our concentration is constantly distracted by video chat, social networking, text and instant messaging, forums and emails. Even the simple reading of a web page can contain pop-up advertisements, hyperlinks and auto-load video content. All this inhibits our ability to focus. We surf the web from impression to impression, sensation to sensation, all while forgetting why we were there in the first place.
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No Time to Analyze and Judge
Television was the forerunner to streaming media. It first presented an enormous amount of material in a short time. It would even introduce complex storylines in long series that would develop over time making in-depth analysis very difficult.
The Internet accelerates the problem of analysis. The human mind cannot process and analyze everything that is presented in a fast-paced scenario. It cannot make sound moral judgments on what was just observed.
When reading a book, we stop, re-read, or ponder what has just read. There is time to analyze nuances, imponderables and details that are easily lost in a fast-paced presentation. Thus, we can make a more in-depth and accurate conclusion. Skimming sensational content on the web does not allow this to happen.
Worse yet, many accept fashionably presented information as legitimate even when it is actually false. As Carr says, we need a substantial amount of “deep thinking.” The Internet encourages superficiality and discourages profundity.
A Visual Information Explosion
Information is not knowledge. Knowledge involves understanding a subject through interpreting and synthesizing that which is perceived. Information without understanding only results in information overload. The Internet does this with stunning efficiency by the sheer volume of the information it makes available.
The Internet has made the production, distribution and access to information easier than at any time in history. However, this easy access also suppresses the selection of the most important information that is often done by analysts. This lack of selection has led to an explosion of superfluous, fake and inaccurate data flooding the Internet. There is less news and much more propaganda.
To keep up with our ever-changing world, we must read more and more while sifting through the true and false. The result is the “Information Fatigue Syndrome,” which causes anxieties, poor decisions, memory difficulties and reduced attention spans.
Overreliance on technology can cause the loss of mental skills. This is referred to as “deskilling our brains.” Anyone who has used a GPS knows how difficult it is to revert to map-reading skills. This is because we do not forge the same visual cues when using a GPS as opposed to reading a map.
So, is digital technology making us stupid?
There is no one answer since it depends on how we use it. However, the Internet’s distractions are both deliberate and mind-numbing. Many experts recommend turning off all notifications (yes, all of them). This will reduce the obstacles that prevent us from working and concentrating.
No one can deny that the progress of digital technology offers benefits. Perhaps that progress is too technical and not moral enough. The necessary development of virtue is the only real way to deal with the dangers of digital technology.
The discussion begs the question: Are we controlling our technology—or is it controlling us?